Application questions (AKA “applied knowledge” questions) challenge you to apply your knowledge in an unfamiliar setting. Essentially, they are biological puzzles, and you have all the information you need to solve them – the real challenge is working out how and where to start.
Here are a few tips to guide you through:
Ask yourself – what topic is this?
Look for key words and phrases that give you clues to which topic area (or areas) the question relates to. There may be a lot of information here that you’ve not seen before – that’s ok! It’s designed that way. If there’s a strangely named chemical described as an enzyme, everything you know about enzymes and proteins might be useful. Do we have an unfamiliar gene? Great – now everything you know about transcription, translation, epigenetics and genetic engineering could be relevant.
Where is the join?
Don’t be put off by the unfamiliar protein / species / mating behaviour in the question! Turn it to your advantage – mine it for clues. Your answer will likely involve a mixture of your own knowledge and using key words (maybe names) and phrases from the new context. Spot the join between what you know already and the information you need to pull from the question and you’ll have everything you need.
Where do I start? How do I end?
Questions worth 5 or 6 marks often have a flow, like a story. If the question asks you what the link is between a mutation in “gene-you’ve-never-heard-of X” and “mystery illness Y” these are you start and end points – they’ve given these to you! – with five story points in-between. Point 1 might be “A mutation in X means the base sequence is altered” Point 2 “This means the primary protein structure might change” …right up to point 5 “lacking the working enzyme produces the symptoms of illness Y”. Make sure your points flow.
What about this graph, diagram or picture?
As complex as it may look, data is there to help you. Scientists use graphs and charts to communicate their results – so spend some time making sure you understand what point they’re trying to make. Remember to make small, specific comparisons between pairs of results – bars on a chart, or lines on a graph. This breaks the problem down into steps, and potentially gives you access to more marks. Remember that a “describe” question wants you to talk about what the data is doing while “explain” wants why it’s doing it (the science behind the graph). “Suggest” questions usually mean you can think creatively to explain the data.
Put yourself in their shoes
If in doubt, take a deep breath read the question from the start again. This isn’t just to “calm you down”, it’s also changing the pace at which you read. Try to ignore any distracting names and picture what is happening for the scientists in the question – what scientific question are they asking? How are they answering it? My students often find the key to application questions is putting yourself in the scientists’ shoes. Can you see anything differently?
See my other tips for A-level biology essays – hopefully these help too.
Dr John Ankers
Specialist online biology tutor